Blue Justice, Jeannine Kadow

Signet, 1998, 400 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-19588-4

From time to time, it happens that an otherwise good novel suffers from one single wacky element, a part of it that just seems incongruous with what we expect, or what we consider to be “acceptable”. It happens that this single element destroys the novel, illustrating other structural flaws or simply turning the reviewer from an unbiased to a negative state of mind.

Blue Justice has such an element, in the character of Maria Alvarez, “a gorgeous 19th Precinct beat cop with a license to kill… and kill again.” She not only the Police Commissioner’s daughter, but she’s also a flaming psychopath, serially sleeping with the whole NYPD police force, harassing co-workers and -oh yeah, that too- killing other police officers by the hearseload.

It stretches, bends, twists and crooks believability not only to include such a character in a book, but to base a whole novel around such an element. The logical blunders are so big that they threaten to engulf the reader’s good faith. How are we to believe that such a twisted character could become a police(wo)man? How are we to accept the fact that she’s never been found out by any other person? How are we to gulp down the assumption that she killed almost a dozen police officers in a year and no one figured out that she was romantically involved with most -if not all- of these policemen? How should we react to the idea that she could go around harassing a fellow police officer (charging harassment, hanging dead eviscerated cats in his locker, charging rape then retracting it, sending ominous letters, making unpleasant phone calls, etc…) in complete impunity?

These are the questions at the start of the novel. But then something quite wonderful happens; the narrative makes you accept it and you’re in for the ride. Blue Justice isn’t your usual cop novel; it twists the usual assumptions, takes a few large risks and ends up as a pretty interesting piece of work despite never being quite believable.

Most of the novel’s strength is in the characters, from the thirty-year veteran Ed Gavin to rookie Jon Strega, tough-nails detective “Cue Ball” Ballantine and Ivy-league blond supercop Hansen, without forgiving psycho Alvarez. These are no simple caricatures, or movie cliché stereotypes. Struggling relationships, devious criminals and internal demons all vastly complicate our protagonists’ lives. Things never go quite as well as planned, never to the appropriate persons. If Hollywood would be to bring Blue Justice to the silver screen, critics would be running to their word processors in order to call it “brilliantly revisionist” and such.

The premise of the book itself isn’t conventional. Veteran Gavin is clued in that a rash of police suicides (including his partner) isn’t as simple as it would seem, but even though he zeroes in on the killer’s identity, it’s never as simple as bringing in the handcuffs. Other things have to be attended to, and while these “other things” are mostly extrataneous to the remainder of the novel, they also constitute most of the atmosphere. In passing, we get a good look at the NYPD and its own little quirks and internal particularities.

While Blue Justice never overcomes this initial feeling of oh-goodness-I-can’t-believe-it outrageousness, it still manages to pull itself together and deliver a good police procedural. The writing style is enjoyable, and the pacing is dynamic enough to compensate for other flaws. Maybe more interesting for jaded readers of the genre, Blue Justice is nevertheless worth a look. Just be ready to give some slack to the psycho killer.

Sea Strike, James H. Cobb

Berkley, 1997, 351 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-16616-3

Military techno-thrillers are usually written by men for men, starring men fighting against other men with carefully described weapons in imaginary wars taking place in the not-too-distant future. More attention is usually given to the geopolitics, the fancy weapons and the action scenes than to character development or fancy prose. It’s an unusually popular genre, at least if we judge it by its foremost practitioners: Tom Clancy, Dale Brown, Larry Bond have all spent some time on the bestseller charts, reaping the results of some pretty good efforts. With Sea Strike, James L. Cobb manages to produce a decent novel that perfectly fits into the genre, and provides good entertainment for any reader.

Cobbs innovate within his field by featuring a female protagonist: Amanda Garrett is the captain of the USS Cunningham, a stealth destroyer featuring the latest in high-tech devices. It’s not the first time that the genre has seen major female characters (Clancy, for instance, has several strong female roles), but never so much at the forefront. Cobbs gets further points by convincingly building Commander Garrett as a reasonably realistic heroine. This reviewer was not enthused by the romantic subplot, but other readers might think otherwise.

Sea Strike won’t turn off many readers by the difficulty of its prose style, which is still as efficiently functional as the best other novels of its genre. The technical descriptions are painlessly inserted, and the action scenes are detailed with the proper mix of detail and directness.

Of course, all of this takes a second seat to original plotting and cool but interesting realism. Fortunately, Sea Strike performs equally well in both areas.

In matters of geopolitics, Cobbs goes to good old China to find its antagonists, though things are made more interesting by a civil war involving not only Chinese dissidents, but also Taiwan. Though some passages dealing with internal Chinese matters could have been edited out of the novel, the development of the crisis is well-handled, doesn’t seem too outrageous (once you get around the idea of a Chinese civil war) and competently presents both the military and the diplomatic side of things.

In terms of cool techno-gadgetry, Sea Strike remains in the realm of the believable, with only a few minor gadgets besides, of course, the USS Cunningham stealth destroyer itself. The gadgets are effectively used, however, and the technical jargon isn’t undecipherable.

The emotional mark of distinction for this type of literature isn’t a sense of wonder, of loss or of affection, but a sense of cool novelty from the action scenes. The best techno-thrillers (like Payne Harrison’s Thunder of Erebus, or Harold Coyle’s Sword Point) all feature individual vignettes, neatly integrated in the action but at the same time standing on their own as mini-scenes of inherent coolness. They must be visually spectacular, technically innovative and not without a certain sense of panache and ironic humor. Sea Strike has a few of them, from the smashing demise of a Chinese nuclear submarine to a last-last-minute helicopter rescue. They don’t take Sea Strike to the classic level, but they certainly brings back some of the sheer fun of this type of novels.

The end result is a novel that’s quite enjoyable. Normally, this wouldn’t warrant a recommendation, but given the sad late-nineties state of the military technothriller as compared to its heydays of the early nineties, Sea Strike is certainly worth picking up for fans of the genre. James H. Cobbs has proven his belonging to the genre, and we can only await his next novel.

The World Is Not Enough (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The World Is Not Enough</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, November 1999) A mixture of the excitingly new and the distressingly familiar. Things start off in a promising fashion, with an extended pre-credit snippet that features an inventive action scene and intriguing new elements (Bond making mistakes, etc…) Unfortunately, the film loses steam as it goes along, only to end on a trite conventional finale that barely elicits anything beyond vague satisfaction. The villain Renard is, again, promisingly introduced (he cannot feel any pain!) but wasted in a role that could have been filled by anyone else. At least the series’ vaunted sex-appeal is distressingly high, what with Sophie Marceau and Denise Richards. Plus, Pierce Brosnan finally proves without a doubt that he’s the best James Bond since Sean Connery. The World Is Not Enough, however, is an average Bond film at best, satisfying without being truly interesting.

(Second viewing, On VHS, August 2001) Like most blockbusters cursed with a strong whiff of stupidity, this is one film that’s not quite as offensive the second time around. Just as forgiving the American Godzilla‘s brain-damaged script makes subsequent viewings oddly endearing, this James Bond adventure might even work better the second time around, if only because you now know when to pay attention. (It helps to have a good book handy to use during the boring parts, of which there are quite a few, all things considered. Is it ironic that the last fifteen minutes are among the most boring? I can’t decide.) This being said, Sophie Marceau turns up in looking great as an unusual Bond girl, while Denise Richard’s overall performance really starts to grate. (I think she’s attractive… but her delivery might be improved by sleep, unconsciousness or a long coma. “Unconvincing” is a gentle word to describe her work. I’ll just rent Wild Things again.) Still think that Brosnan’s the best Bond, close behind Connery. Still think that whatever the faults, James Bond films are good fun.

Toy Story 2 (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Toy Story 2</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, November 1999) This sequel easily comes close to its predecessor in terms of humor, action, emotion and enjoyment. It’s amazing to see that, in an age where committee-produced art is sign of blandness, Pixar continues to turn in films that are the epitome of computer-generated production yet manage to have more human emotion than most live-action films. A lot of laugh-out-loud moments, clever parodies, a high-octane opener and a lot of great references to the original film. The movie pulls off an emotional musical sequence near the middle, and manages to insert an unusually powerful message at the same time. The action scenes are better than most “action movies” of this year. A very good choice for adults and kids alike.

Borderlands of Science, Charles Sheffield

Baen, 1999, 367 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 0-671-57836-7

We live in interesting times. Everywhere you look, things are changing, and they’re changing at an accelerated rate. It used to be that a decade could pass without perceptible difference. Not anymore. Going back a decade from 1999 brings us to a world still locked in a cold war, without Internet, without decent personal computers, without quasi-classic cultural references like JURASSIC PARK and TITANIC. Anecdotal evidence aside, we are now collectively running along in a race called Progress.

Most of this progress is fuelled, directly or not, by science and technology. In Borderlands of Science, noted scientist and SF author Charles Sheffield tries to establish what is the extent of today’s knowledge. “This book” writes Sheffield in his introduction, “defines the frontiers of today’s science.” This isn’t an easy task, and even though Sheffield makes valiant efforts, the results still fails short of his ambitions.

Part of the problem, as Sheffield himself acknowledges, is that science is so mind-bogglingly all-inclusive and specialized to the point of rarefaction, that no sane individual can aspire to know all about it. Sheffield is, by formation, a physicist/mathematician with a body of experience in astronautics. This makes him an ideal writer to talk about physics and space exploration, but that doesn’t make him an authority in chemistry, biology or computer science. Indeed Borderlands of Science falters when it tries to dissect these subjects, an impression strengthened by the pell-mell organization of the book.

The second problem of this book is that it’s targeted, not to a general audience, but to aspiring science-fiction writers. You would think that publisher Jim Baen, in his marketing genius, would aim for a layman’s audience numbering in the… oh… few millions. But instead, Sheffield passes his time pointing out potential “story ideas” where simply stating the state of current research would do just as well. Granted, this is an artifact of the book’s origin (it derives partly from a series of lectures given by Sheffield to a bunch of wanabee SF writers), but it’s still annoying to the (far numerous) readers without any interest in mining “story ideas” from this book.

Another marketing misfire is more readily obvious, at least on the hardcover edition: As it is now common with Baen large editions, their art geniuses have slapped a coat of metallic paint on the cover, making it garishly unpleasant to look at. Of course, given the already-ugly nature of the illustration itself, this might have been done intentionally. Still, Borderlands of Science deserved a more restrained cover along the lines of most popular-science books.

Even despite these various flaws, Borderlands of Science manages to be a pretty decent scientific vulgarization book. Sheffield writes with a certain amount of wit, and the result is a book that goes deeply into scientific jargon, but which always return before it’s too late. Even though the structure is a bit hesitant at times, there is a very complete table of content, index and many documented references.

In short, a decent popular-science read for hard-SF fans.

[January 2000: Bad news for Sheffield: The ideal limits-of-science book already exists, and is called Visions, by Michio Kaku. It actually begins with a question raised by Sheffield at the end of his book: “Is this the end of science?” and proceeds from there by saying that the basic discoveries have been nailed down, but that the science of mastery awaits… Read the review, or the book, for more details.]

The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Thomas Crown Affair</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, November 1999) The kind of film that (almost) doesn’t get made anymore; a reasonable tagline for a remake. Renée Russo and Pierce Brosnan are very convincing as (respectively) a sultry insurance investigator and a gentleman thief. Some sequences seem designed in function of highlighting how good Russo still looks. The heist sequences are great and the seduction scenes are smoldering. A great more-mature-than-usual film.

Space Jam (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Space Jam</strong> (1996)

(On TV, November 1999) This film annoys on three separate fronts. For one thing, as a Canadian weaned on hockey, the glorification of modern basketball simply doesn’t reach me. For another, Space Jam is a film designed for kids, and not much thought has been given to making it palatable for older audiences. Finally, this film reeks of merchandising for basketball and Looney Tunes; even liking both doesn’t wash the awful impression left by this extended commercial. There are a few (very few) good jokes in the Looney Tunes tradition, but even more stupid gags. The romantic interest seems more tacked-on than anything else seen recently. Worthwhile for the special effects… but don’t pay anything.

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Sleepy Hollow</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, November 1999) Tim Burton is an expert at delivering atmosphere, and it’s that ability that makes Sleepy Hollow such an entertaining film. This supernatural whodunit/thriller might have unpalatable in the hands of lesser talents, but is so well-done here that it’s almost impossible not to like. The acting is uniformly decent, but the direction and cinematography are top-notch. Maybe a bit disappointing in the finale, but even then a worthwhile film.

(Second viewing, On DVD, September 2001) Whatever one might think of elements of the script, it’s really Tim Burton who takes this film from undistinguished B-grade obscurity all the way to A-list goodness. The visual polish of the film is so successful it’s almost scary; you’ll want to see the pretty pictures over and over again. In retrospect, it’s even difficult to imagine the film directed by anyone else, so perfectly does it all mesh together. In comparison, the plot is creaky, with unexplainable deaths and head-scratching moments. Not too creaky, though: The dialogue works well, the story keeps our attention and if nothing else, it’s much better than what you could have expected. The DVD features a few interesting behind-the-scenes glimpses and a strangely featureless commentary by director Tim Burton. Still; this is a movie you can’t help but to like, if only for how gosh-darn wonderful it looks.

The Relic (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Relic</strong> (1997)

(On TV, November 1999) There really isn’t much to say about this film mostly because it’s such an obvious, average monster movie. There are a few worthwhile moments (Penelope Ann Miller, The SWAT team assault, a few good camera setups) but they’re not worth plowing through the trite dialogue, unconvincing techno-babble, ineffectual jump-scares and limp directing. Structurally, the film is better-constructed that the original novel, but the final result makes so little usage of cinematographic strengths (most egregiously by locating everything in budget-saving darkness) that you’re unlikely to notice.

Private Parts (1997)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Private Parts</strong> (1997)

(On TV, November 1999) An awfully self-indulgent autobiography by and about Howard Stern. Though its central thesis is that “it’s all an act”, that objective is basically incompatible with the film’s aim to shock and amuse, hence the curiously mixed reaction at the results. Not without amusing moments, but not a laugh-aloud riot either.

Meg, Steve Alten

Doubleday, 1997, 278 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-48905-6

There are two ways to write a novel. The first one is to reach into your personal experiences, pull out your opinions and emotions about life and write a honestly moving narrative that works for you first, and everyone else after. The second way is to tailor a product to the marketplace, designing the flow of the novel to appeal to a large public and really aim for a mass audience. In a nutshell, that’s supposed to be the difference between “literature” and “bestsellers”.

Self-proclaimed artists will try to make you believe that writing literature is considerably harder than writing a bestseller. But is it really so?

While there is some truth to the widely-held observation that bestsellers are more formulaic than other types of fiction, it still takes great skill to put together the elements of a successful mass-market novel.

It’s almost a given that first, a bestseller needs an intriguing premise. Meg not only promises something similar to JAWS by loosening a shark upon an unsuspecting human population, but actually promises more than JAWS by featuring something much bigger: A twenty-ton, sixty-foot-long Carcharodon Megalodon. “Meg” to its friends. An escaped Jurassic-era relic of unheard-of proportions: It features a head as big as a pickup truck armed with nine-inch-long teeth “with the serrated edges of a stainless-steel knife.” [P.4] And, being a shark, it has all of the superior perceptive and motor skills of the world’s most enduring predator.

The Meg is introduced in the first two chapters. The human characters come much later. There’s the brilliant-but-flawed protagonist Jonas Taylor (no points for predicting what happens to a hero with a surname like that,) a paleontologist with a deep-reaching trauma. There’s his wife, an ambitious journalist with plans to discredit her husband in order to divorce him with justification. (No point for guessing what happens to such a conniving woman.) There’s Terry Tanaka, a young Asian woman with something to prove. Plus the usual array of colorful supporting characters, whether they’re allies or not. They’re realized competently, well-within the usual standards of the genre.

What happens with this premise and these characters is, like you’d expect, a book-long monster hunt. First Jonas has to go to the Meg, deep down at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean. Then the Meg has to escape its natural habitat and wreak havoc, first in Hawaii then along the Californian coast. It’s all very exciting, just as we’d expect it.

Ultimately, thrillers like Meg can be evaluated on their potential cinematographic strengths. And that where this novel truly shines. By the time one throwaway scene near the end basically destroys nine news helicopters in a mid-air crash, you can only grin in sadistic delight and buy the movie rights. A shark with a head as big as a pickup truck makes for memorable scenes!

The remainder, characters, dialogue and psychological unsophistication, is just dressing on the cake. Meg isn’t JAWS, but it’s good enough to be a worthwhile read on its own. “Two Words: JURASSIC SHARK” says the end-cover blurb. Not a bad review, in a nutshell.

[May 2007: I really tried to enjoy the next two entries in the Meg series, but they illustrate what happens to a good concept when you wring it dry. Both The Trench and Primal Waters fall into the trap ofdoing the same thing over and over again: The Meg gets loose, the Meg reappears and eats people, the Meg is captured, killed or driven away. Wash, Rinse, Repeat. Primal Waters is a bit more interesting than the second tome thanks to some easy pot-shots at reality TV and a delirious scene involving baseball fans, but that’s about it. Plus, there’s something depressing about each novel beginning by driving accursed protagonist Jonas Taylor deeper in despair in order to give him some dramatic stakes. Alten: Let. It. Go.]

Lola Rennt [ Run Lola Run] (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Lola Rennt</strong> [ <strong class="MovieTitle">Run Lola Run</strong>] (1998)

(In theaters, November 1999) This begins with a bang, as the techno soundtrack paralyses you and the frantic pacing of the first thirty minutes keeps your eyes glued to the screen. It begins repeating itself -literally- after that, but the result is still a provocative, interesting, dynamic film that’s not SF (maybe?) but still evokes concepts like hypertext, chaos theory and parallel worlds. Several cleverly hilarious moments. Definitely worth a look.

Jingle All The Way (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Jingle All The Way</strong> (1996)

(On TV, November 1999) The high-concept: Arnold Schwarzenegger as a strung-out dad who’ll do anything to get a rare toy for his child. It works (any other actor in the role would have been far less successful) but it would have worked better if the film could have maintained its adult satiric tone throughout, instead of pandering to kiddie audiences like it does so shamelessly at the beginning and the end of the film. Some potential, but the final result doesn’t warrant the bother.

The Insider (1999)

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

(In theaters, November 1999) A film that, like most Michael Mann film, contains some great sequences but ultimately proves to be too long and not focused enough to be satisfying. Part of the problem is that The Insider is about two stories. The first one is about a whistleblower’s decision to tell what he knows, and this part seriously drags. It’s never fun to see someone’s life go to pieces and given that most of us with sufficient knowledge of movies already suspect where this is going, the first hour is overpadded by at least thirty minutes. (Then there’s the assertion that this part seriously distorts “actual facts”, which doesn’t really help the overall film.) Things get better as we move to the second story, which is a tale of journalism gone corporate. That is, at least, a bit more fast-paced and satisfying. Compounding the problem is Mann’s annoying tendency to go for “epic” films, not well-paced ones. The operatic/eastern score is annoying. A long sit, and not always worthwhile.

House On Haunted Hill (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">House On Haunted Hill</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, November 1999) This gets a lot of points for actually being scary, even if only for a while. The first hour is quite creepy, with enough ominous signs and sights to really make us believe that something baaad is going to happen to these six strangers stuck in an abandoned mental hospital… The sound effects are terrific in a good digital theatre, and the various “instruments” of primitive mental therapy (surgical blades, electroshocks, etc…) lying around cast a decidedly hair-raising spell on the proceedings. With the eerie visuals (vibrating faces and video-ghosts sent a good ol’chill down my spine) and the sudden noises, it’s easy to forget the lousy dialogue and the unconvincing characters. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. Once Price is out of the mad box, sixty minutes into the film, there’s still a worthwhile thirty minutes of “human terror” (solid if not spectacular) but as soon as the CGI creature comes out of the closet, all the suspense disappears. Poof. Bad CGI (Smoke in Dark Shadows? Please!) runs after the too-obvious heroes and frankly, we’ve seen all of this before—usually much better done. You often hear critics lament the advent of digital special effects, but House On Haunted Hill features the purest enters-CGI-exits-tension effect I’ve witnessed. A shame, because the first hour really isn’t all that bad.